Advanced Placement (AP) courses, which can count for college credit when accompanied by a passing score on an AP exam, are the most rigorous courses regularly offered by high schools. Perception of the high value of AP courses has led the Washington Post and U.S. News and World Report to use the number of AP classes offered and exams taken as metrics in their annual rankings of high schools. For this reason, the Humanities Indicators looks to student involvement in the AP program as one measure of advanced learning in humanities subjects at the secondary school level.
Findings and Trends
- From 1996 to 2015, humanities exams were the most commonly taken AP exams, outstripping each of the other fields—math and computer science, natural sciences, and social sciences—by a wide margin (Indicator I-8a). During this period, the number of AP exams taken in the humanities more than quadrupled. The number of exams taken in other fields started lower but increased even more dramatically. Exams taken in the social sciences, in particular, increased more than eleven-fold.
- The rate of humanities exam-taking among high school students also increased substantially from 1996 to 2015. The number of humanities exams taken per 100 students rose every year over that period. In the most recent year for which data are available, 12.4 exams were taken per 100 high school students, 3.7 times the rate of exam-taking in 1996.
- The number of exams taken in each of the three humanities disciplines—English language and literature, history, and languages and literatures other than English (LOTE)—increased substantially from 1996 to 2015 (Indicator I-8b).
- Every year since 1996, the rate of exam-taking in English language and literature has been greater than in any other subject, humanities or otherwise. In 2015, 5.7 English exams were taken for every 100 high school students, up from 1.5 in 1996 (a 279% increase).
- The number of history exams taken per 100 students also increased approximately 300% (from 1.3 to 5.3) over the 1996–2015 time period. One driver of this growth was the introduction in 2002 of the world history exam (which grew rapidly in popularity, from 20,955 tests taken the first year the exam was administered to 265,308 in 2015).
- Exams in LOTE, while not taken as often as other humanities exams, are being taken with increasing frequency. The number of such exams taken per 100 high school students rose from 0.5 in the mid-1990s to 1.3 in 2015. This increase was fueled by growth in the number of exams taken in Spanish language and literature, which accounted for 76.5% of the LOTE exams taken in 2015.
- Indicator I-8c presents AP score information for each of the disciplines in which exams were administered in May 2015 and also for the four broad academic fields mentioned above. Three measures of student performance are provided: mean score, the share of students scoring 3 or better (AP courses are scored using a five-point scale; if a student receives a score of 3 or higher, he or she is considered to have “passed” the exam), and the share of students receiving the highest possible score of 5. Examinees performed best on all measures in math and computer science, followed by the social sciences, and then the humanities, and finally the natural sciences.
- Focusing on one measure of performance, the share of examinees scoring 3 or better, LOTE exams were among those, in all fields, on which students did best. Other humanities exams, such as world and U.S. history, were among those on which students performed worst.
I-8a: Advanced Placement Exams Taken in Broad Academic Fields, 1996–2015
The College Board, “AP Program Participation and Performance Data 2015,” https://research.collegeboard.org/programs/ap/data/participation/ap-2015
; and The College Board, “AP Data—Archived Data,” http://research.collegeboard.org/programs/ap/data/archived
. Student counts used to calculate the rate of exam-taking: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, “Digest of Education Statistics 2015” (online version), Table 105.30, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d15/tables/dt15_105.30.asp
, accessed 7/12/2016.
I-8b: Advanced Placement Exams Taken in Humanities Subjects, 1996–2015
I-8c: Student Performance on AP Examinations, by Discipline and Broad Academic Field, 2015
* The value for each broad academic field (these fields are indicated with double arrows) is a weighted average of the mean student scores on the exams taken in each of the disciplines composing that field. The mean for each discipline was weighted by the number of students taking that exam, necessary because within each field, particularly the humanities, some exams were taken by a far greater number of students than others.
The means for “Standard” languages and literatures other than English (LOTE) exams were calculated for those students who received most of their LOTE training in U.S. schools. These students did not indicate on their answer sheet that they regularly speak or hear the foreign language of the exam or that they had lived for one month or more in a country where the language is spoken.
Source:The College Board, “Student Score Distributions: AP Exams, May 2015,” https://docs.google.com/viewer?docex=1url=https://secure-media.collegeboard.org/digitalServices/pdf/research/2015/Student-Score-Distributions-2015.pdf, accessed 7/12/2016.